Having just received my Master’s degree*, optimism still dominates my and my fellow graduates’ minds. But as I head into a career in development, cynicism will certainly rear its familiar head. One favorite moment from graduation weekend was a conversation with a professor, who himself has long experience in development. In the course of talking about my future I joked that “I’m a slowly-developing cynic.” He immediately responded, suddenly serious, “Oh – don’t ever become a cynic.” Just as he has been an inspiration to many of us, our freshly-graduated sense of idealism and possibility was inspiring to him, and he didn’t want to see that spoiled.
It reminded me of a recent op-ed in the New York Times from Nora Shenkel, a Master’s candidate in Scotland who recently worked briefly for an NGO in Haiti. She describes how she quickly was faced with a moral dilemma: her work appeared to be having little effect over the long term, and she wonders how she “earned” material comforts and career success in a place where so many people have incredibly immediate needs. Her solution to this dilemma was to leave Haiti early and leave a development career completely; this is, she says, “the most honest thing I could do for Haiti.”
Perhaps that is true for her situation. But I can’t let the implication that giving in to cynicism is the best possible solution to this dilemma go unchallenged. Browse through blogs of young aid workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and graduate interns, and you’ll see a great variety of takes on this dilemma.** Aid workers – even PCVs – nearly all live in relative privilege in the middle of often desperate poverty, but with their responsibility to address immediate needs “purged” by the fact that their work is meant to help over the long run.
This does not make Nora’s experience invalid, and in fact I rather like the solution she finds for herself. She ends her piece by describing her return to Haiti – as a visitor. She’d come to celebrate the country and the friends she’d made there, and she did not have to feel dishonest about trying to fight poverty while living in luxury. Ivan Illich, in his insightful 1968 speech “To Hell With Good Intentions,” proposes the same solution: come to visit, not to help.
Still, there are other equally valid ways to deal with this dilemma, even if at the time they feel less of a strong, morally unambiguous statement. One fellow PCV in Niger had a policy I admired very much – she would help some of her neighbors with medical costs but always accompany them to the heath center. Personally, I would not pay for medicines (to keep from getting swamped with requests) but would participate in informal social safety nets in other ways, by sharing food and coins with beggars and buying extra milk powder and soap for a struggling neighbor. These strategies are attempts to find a balance between a) not being taken advantage of, and b) the desire to use your privilege to make an immediate positive change.
Beyond the material, there is also simply a matter of treating people with dignity and not letting yourself think of them as an “other.” Amid delightfully snarky development blogs, Aaron Ausland at Staying For Tea*** stands out as positively confronting this dilemma with five principles of community development work. Ausland’s principles focus on honesty, personal connections and process.
A theme of these strategies, of course, is that relationships with people offer a direction and a means to express empathy (whether materially or personally). I have previously posted on how I try to be “present” in the places I end up. Most aid workers, unlike PCVs, have cars, nice houses and other benefits that may make it more difficult to build relationships. I have not yet faced this situation, but while the dilemma may feel different it will still be there, and need to be confronted.
Alas, many in this field do seem to just accept the “purged responsibility” argument and move on. Nora noted this phenomenon in her op-ed too, colleagues who would even get angry at Haitians for asking for money, thinking incredulously, ”Don’t they know we’re here to help?” This, to me, is the essence of the Cynical Aid Worker – feeling toughened by living amid poverty yet not putting in the extra effort to maintain the dignity of poor people or to understand of how the aid worker him/herself is viewed.
The key, I believe, is continuous self-reflection.
This doesn’t mean having a few “fluffy” discussions, nor constant anxiety about the moral ambiguity of it all. It does mean not simply accepting one solution and sticking with it. As we journey through life and through the world, new experiences should keep informing our values and our judgment, and the solution should evolve with us. This is my graduation pledge to my professor: I’ll keep an aggressive, adaptable defense against threats to my optimism. I’ll do this through reflection on my role in a situation, critical analysis of moral ambiguities, and most importantly, empathy and relationships with people wherever I am in the world.
I’d be interested in others’ thoughts as well, especially as the ink on my diploma starts to dry. How have you or others you’ve seen dealt with this dilemma?here, from a younger Nathan in Mali as a visitor. Disclaimer is that this blog was more about the wonder of the place, not so much critical reflection on moral ambiguities. ***NOT the same as “Three Cups of Tea,” the book by the guy building schools in Afghanistan who turned out to be dishonest about his story and mismanaging donations.
Most aid organizations will be happy with Obama’s proposed changes to food aid policy, which would stop sending American food overseas either as direct aid or to be monetized and distributed as cash. This has been proposed before, but this time the word “momentum” keeps popping up in news articles. There is an appetite for trimming fat from the budget, and the way the current system is successfully being framed by opponents – “inefficient” – is a damning argument for many lawmakers these days. Also, Obama no longer needs to win an Iowa primary, so the administration has more political space to fight for this. (Though I wouldn’t expect Biden to get within a mile of this.) All this suggests that this reform has a chance to get through Congress. I hope it does, and I hope that aid organizations will lobby hard for this.
But I have to be skeptical. Three things are going to work against this proposal. First, there is still a large group of lawmakers and interests that will fight against reform. Agricultural and shipping interests that benefit from in-kind food aid have always successfully defeated this proposal in the past, and they must know where their biggest leverage points in government are. They have a lot at stake for themselves.
Second, Obama has many bigger fish to fry. He’s set up another fight with Republicans on revenue, and now a fight with his own party on entitlement reform. His universal preschool proposal was a key feature of the State of the Union and the defense budget will always be a big issue. The administration will focus its political capital on these things, and it may have less to spend on food aid reform.
And finally, weighing in at $1.5 Billion, food aid is a tiny part of the budget. With small savings to be had in changing the program, deficit hawks may be vulnerable to agricultural and shipping lobby groups.
These are the challenges faced by proponents of reform. They have the better argument – dumping US food in emergency situations harms already fragile food markets – and this may be the closest thing they have to a window of opportunity. It’s possible that other agricultural cuts, such as $5 billion direct subsidies to farmers or crop insurance, will take the brunt of the lobbying and food aid reform can sneak through. With the support of aid organizations, ever more conscious of how American policy is affecting the communities abroad they work in, I hope it can.
Not sure exactly where Africa Is A Country got the inspiration for their name, but I couldn’t help wonder if it’s from the World Bank website, which helpfully has link pathways that look like this: “Home > Countries > Africa > Education”.
Also, looking at that blog tipped me off to the New York African Film Festival, which would definitely be worth a trip to that city if I weren’t trying to write a thesis these days…
WANGO – World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations. Or this. I just hope both types of WANGO meetings feature similar dancing.
BINGO – Big International NGO
SLoNGO – Sexy Local NGO. I’m sure there are many more variations on this theme.
Hlppost2015 – High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agneda; alas they were not careful to keep the acronym from sounding like they’re off saving animals. Or at least to use upper case.
SWEDOW - Stuff We Don’t Want, aka useless in-kind donations that bog down development
UNAMIS, and UNMISS – The UN’s Advance Mission In Sudan and Mission In South Sudan. Presumably they rose above their names.
MST – Maladie Sexuellement Transmissibles, or as many secondary students in West Africa cleverly use to describe an unfortunate phenomenon, Moyennes Sexuellement Transmissibles (Sexually Transmitted Grades)
SIDA – In English: Swedish International Development Agency; in French: Syndrome d’ImmunoDeficience Acquise (you should be able to work this out)
And far and away my favorite…
IMAGINE project – IMprove the educAtion of Girls In NigEr. I’m all for good branding, but this is just cheating.
This morning’s headline on Aljazeera’s website: “Kenya candidates make final campaign bids”
No doubt a deliberate reference to their recent expose of more literal campaign “bidding”
How to deal with transactional elections in Africa? As an American, I’m probably not the most qualified person to respond…
A new take on measuring empowerment. This is the kind of story that just tears at you, as an amazing example of creative, inspired people making something out of, literally, trash. Bad puns aside, this is a standout example of the type of thing we mean when we talk about empowerment. And it is hard to measure how empowered these kids or their parents feel, or how they might use this confidence in other areas of life.
But it still doesn’t sit quite right with me. The circumstances that made this possible – these communities making their living off trash – are not at all unusual. The extraordinary ingenuity of the man behind these instruments & this orchestra, of course, is unusual. And that’s precisely the point – it takes unusual, extraordinary people.
The ingredients of this orchestra are not just some skilled craftsmen and a bunch of scrap metal, though those were necessary. It also needed somebody who: knows how to make and play these instruments; has the time and the motivation to start an orchestra from quite literally scratch and teach all these kids to play; has the means (both finance and physical) to access to music, stands, strings, bows, trumpets, etc; and is decently good with kids. Not to mention a quiet(ish) space to practice (though perhaps they practice with dump trucks in the background); a safe space to store the instruments.
I don’t mean to rain on this parade. I do mean to say this: development types should recognize that it’s not just about “empowering recycling workers to make instruments”. There’s sooooo much more to it than that. That guy leading the Landfillharmonic, he exists in more places than we think. He’s the one empowering those kids. Let’s think about how we can empower him, and all the men and women with similar qualities for music, art, film, sports, books, science, math, health, farmer field schools, sanitation, nutrition, etc etc etc.
I think about my childhood. Every opportunity I had that gave me some sort of empowerment or confidence was because someone else was motivated and empowered to offer it to me. My music teachers in school come to mind: Mr. Wiele, Mr. Covelli, Mr. Wells, Mr. Firchow. My elementary science teacher Mrs. Roberts, the drama teacher Ms. Patretti. The dads who coached my baseball and soccer teams. My dad who organized a weekly pick-up games in the summers. Some were privately funded, others publicly. But none of them assumed I could empower myself with just a little kick out the door. All provided a balance of freedom and guidance – so they needed to be empowered too.
Empower the empowerers. Maybe it’s like “train the trainers,” destined for buzzword purgatory. But if we’re not just going to train people to do different things with the same old trash, we need to give motivated people the power to provide that balance of freedom and guidance out of there.
“With all the powers of your body concentrated in the hand on the tiller,
All the powers of your mind concentrated on the goal beyond the horizon,
You laugh as the salt spray catches your face in the second of rest
Before the new wave-
Sharing the happy freedom of the moment with those who share your responsibility.
So – in the self-forgetfulness of concentrated attention – the door opens for you into a pure living intimacy,
A shared, timeless happiness,
Conveyed by a smile,
A wave of the hand.
Thanks to those who have taught me this. Thanks to the days which have taught me this.”
- Dag Hammarskjold, 1954